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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Continuity Errors, Sci-Fi Movies, and Judicial Decisions


Todd Seavey has some interesting observations on consistency of fictional universes, such as Star Wars and Star Trek.   After Star Wars Episode III recently came out, many fans lamented the contradictions and inconsistencies between the six Star Wars movies, myself included.  Here is a taste of some of Seavey’s observations, which, as I will explain later, have some interesting parallels to judicial decisionmaking:

The fictional universes depicted in movies like the Star Wars or Star Trek series tend to get very complex. . . . That complexity means that—inevitably—the occasional “continuity error” occurs. In normal movie parlance, a continuity error means one of those embarrassing moments when, say, the bandage on an actor moves from the right hand to the left hand between scenes due to a mistake by the makeup department. For science fiction fans, though, continuity refers to the overall logical and historical coherence of our beloved fictional universes.

For you see, any story must have a certain amount of internal coherence if we are to achieve suspension of disbelief. And we must achieve suspension of disbelief. . . . It is only the grandeur and majesty of a fictional universe the size and complexity of one like the Star Wars universe, the Star Trek universe, the DC Comics universe, or the Marvel Comics universe (and perhaps soap operas) that is truly difficult to maintain.

Perhaps this is why it irks fans so much when so many obvious continuity errors pop up in the Star Wars films. 

Continuity is also critical to the judicial decisionmaking process, as we have a system of precedent, where courts aim to achieve a consistency in judicial opinions which are written by different people over different time periods.  Ronald Dworkin’s chain novel theory comes to mind.  In A Matter of Principle (1985), he writes:

Suppose that a group of novelists is engaged in a particular project and that they draw lots to determine the order of play.  The lowest number writes the opening chapter of a novel, which he or she then sends to the next number, who adds a chapter, with the understanding that the is adding a chapter to that novel rather than beginning a new one, and then sends the two chapters to the next number, and so on.  Now every novelist but the first has the dual responsibilities of interpreting and creating because each must read all that has gone before in order to establish, in the interpretivist sense, what the novel so far created is. (p. 158)

Dworkin then analogizes this chain novel exercise to judicial decisionmaking:

Each judge must regard himself, in deciding the new case before him, as a partner in a complex chain enterprise of which these innumerable decisions, structures, conventions, and practices are the history; it is his job to continue that history into the future through what he does on the day.  (p. 159)

It’s time to return back to Seavey on sci-fi movies:

Yet sometimes the editors and writers responsible for such series barely care about maintaining continuity, so busy are they with more mundane tasks such as writing entertaining dialogue and coming up with interesting new characters. That is why such universes desperately need the obsessive, crank-like fan, the fan willing to concoct rationalizations that make sense of the apparent continuity errors. Indeed, without such fans, I question whether the continuity of these universes could be maintained at all. The fate of entire fictional worlds, the very cohesion of the space-time continuum, hinges on the selfless efforts of fans like myself to keep track of what the hell is going on and explain the slip-ups by the so-called “professionals”!

What if we carry the analogy back to judicial decisions?  Are we law professors like the “obsessive, crank-like fan, the fan willing to concoct rationalizations that make sense of the apparent continuity errors”? 

Perhaps Star Wars does have something to contribute to legal theory after all. 

Thanks to Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing for the pointer.

Posted by Daniel Solove on May 31, 2005 at 04:22 PM in Daniel Solove, Legal Theory | Permalink


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Now, as both a comic book geek and a law geek, this discussion of continuity errors overlooks several important parts of the analogy at hand. First, the high-functioning comic geeks of the world possess a rare knowledge and power to assimilate and synthesize dispirate comic knowledge into one cohesive form. Second, most such comic fans, however, will ignore and gloss over certain continuity bumps and wrinkles as the mistakes of inappropriate editors and writers. Few authros are assumed to be right and are not wriggled into place.
Once this second layer of complexity is added, I believe that law professors and law geeks are the sort of fans who try to create the single coherant universe. Certain decisions and decision making strands are viewed as abberations that are to be avoided. Some are to be enhanced. Certain authors are taken at better than face value when integrated into the over scheme of the jurisprudence.
The real joy in both situations is when one of the "professionals" began life as a geek and now has the opportunity to put some kind of cohesive force into their writings.

Posted by: Joel | Jun 1, 2005 10:01:19 AM

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